“a failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself”

Gertrude Stein

Failure is more intriguing than success. Success feels narrow; failure is rhizomatic and less contained. This past spring a professor of psychology at Princeton produced a CV of his failures: articles rejected, positions not offered, promotions denied…. Failure allows for pluralism and perspectivalism. In the spaces of failure, spaces often of not knowing or not understanding, creativity can flourish. In Samuel Beckett’s novella, Worstward Ho (1983) there are six sentences of two words each: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the Beckett quote has become a favorite of Silicon Valley and the entrepreneurial crowd. But what about a non-progressive “failing better,” failure as a practice without deliverables?

Failure and feeling bad are popular topics these days, as various social justice movements and the broader left try to figure out what to do next. Against this backdrop of uneven successes and failures, a “reparative turn” has emerged, one that, building on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work, argues for a more generous relationship to failure, limit, and unintended outcomes. Could this reparative orientation be a way to practice “failing better,” given our contemporary moment? Might failure be another way into the perpetual uncertainty desired by poets like John Keats, as well as by poststructural social work? Is there something to be said for failing as a way of life, as a keyword or methodology through which to engage the world and the discipline we both inherit and reproduce?

Group Members:
Tina Wilson, McMaster University, Ontario, Canada
Halim Faisal, DHF Counseling and Consulting, Georgia, USA
Eva Fleischer, Management Center, Innsbruck, Austria
Mari Ann Graham, University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, USA,
Allan Irving, Pennsylvania, USA
Helene Lindström, Örebro University, Sweden
Melissa (Emmy) Legge, McMaster University, Ontario, Canada

Summary of Group’s Discussion

Our discussion group took failure as a problematic, exploring how non-hierarchical and non-binary facets refract each other: shame and fear; individual and discipline; envy and desire; personal and professional; life and work; theory and practice. We noted an urge to make redemptive meaning out of failure; to achieve some form of consolation-compensation for our troubles, and for the troubles of others.

As a profession and as an applied discipline, social work has failed to maintain its political and activist edge. As educators, we may fail to practice what we teach, and sometimes, students fail to become the social workers we feel the world needs. As practitioners, we fail to find ways to work critically-enough within the jobs we are hired to do. In turn, many of the shifts towards managerialism are developed out of an understanding of both clients and workers as having failed to be sufficiently efficient. Then there’s knowledge–new, old, correct for now–which promises us so much, and then fails to adequately change the world. Of course, capitalism is the biggest failure of our time.

What, we asked, might social work make of failure as a methodology or practice? Failure as the usual incoherence of being in-process, a clue to our cultural moment, and, as “grit” in the wheel of neoliberalism: “…the public realm (and the attachments that it mobilises) is part of the ‘grit’ that prevents the imagined neo-liberal world system functioning smoothly. It makes a difference to our view of the world if we start by looking for the grit – taking notice of the recalcitrance, resistance, obstruction, and incomplete rule…” (Clarke, 2004, p. 44). Failure as resistance, then, a kind of contrariness we cannot help but embody.

What prohibitions are there in the spaces we create and embody to naming failure? What is produced by this prohibition? Who, as they say, benefits? How might we live and teach and practice and research in the absence of a convincing narrative of human futurity? What might social work education look like if students were required to fail x times before they could graduate? What scholarship might we release into the world if we were not afraid our peers would reject us?

We were delighted to hear a professor at Princeton, Johannes Haushofer, had posted a “failure CV” online, and we wondered at our delight. What if we drafted a failure CVs for our discipline, for ourselves? Would we experience similar delight? We wondered if courage, not rules, is what is needed in social work, and some of us learned for the first time about the new German resistance movement of “black book social work” that is being taken up in a number of European countries. Failure, we agreed, is important, and there is something that feels right about sharing our failures with others.

Our group invited the larger Vermont gathering to create a collective Gallery of Failure using sticky-notes. We each wrote down three failures: personal, professional, and discipline-profession.  We did not label our failures with these too-discrete distinctions, however, because in real life things blend. We posted our anonymous failures around the room and viewed our collective Gallery. And then, the gathering discussed love.

Clarke, J. (2004). Dissolving the public realm?: the logics and limits of neo-liberalism. Journal of Social Policy, 33(1), pp. 27-48.

CV of failures: Princeton professor publishes résumé of his career lows https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/apr/30/cv-of-failures-princeton-professor-publishes-resume-of-his-career-lows Retrieved November 3, 2016

Haushofer, J. Failure CV: http://www.princeton.edu/haushofer/Johannes_Haushofer_CV_of_Failures.pdf Retrieved November 3, 2016



  1. erymn  February 8, 2020
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